Keir Starmer’s decision not to scrap the two-child benefit cap if Labour wins power has exposed deep splits within the party, as he faces mounting calls to rethink the policy.
Facing the prospect of a battle at this week’s national policy forum (NPF) over the controversial decision, shadow cabinet ministers were sent out to defend his position. They argued that if Labour wanted to appear fiscally credible at the next election, it could not make any spending commitments without saying how they would be funded.
But at a bad-tempered meeting of the parliamentary Labour party on Monday, almost every question to the deputy leader, Angela Rayner, was about Starmer’s stance on the two-child benefit limit. Some frustrated MPs called it a mistake and urged party leaders to reconsider.
Senior party figures, including Anas Sarwar, the leader of the Labour party in Scotland, which sets its own policy, publicly broke ranks and suggested they would fight the policy, while several shadow cabinet ministers said they were “despairing” at the decision.
The Labour leader faces further challenges to his stance at the NPF, a key meeting that is part of the manifesto process. Sources said that “multiple” amendments to scrap the cap had been tabled to draft policies.
On a difficult day for Starmer, a leftwing regional mayor who has been blocked from being Labour’s candidate for the north-east mayoralty announced that he was quitting the party to try to run as an independent.
Jamie Driscoll said in a statement on Monday that “people are tired of being controlled by Westminster and party HQs” as he hit out at Starmer over broken pledges.
Sarwar said he would press him to scrap the two-child limit. “We continue to believe that it exacerbates poverty, and we continue to believe that it needs to change,” he told the Daily Record.
“But we will continue to press any incoming UK Labour government to move as fast as they can within our fiscal rules to remove this heinous policy.”
Meg Hillier, the Labour MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch, and chair of the Commons public accounts committee, told the BBC: “Well, I was never comfortable about having the child benefit cap come in … Personally, I’d be lobbying for a lifting of that.”
Rosie Duffield, the Labour MP for Canterbury, who is on the centre-right of the party, responded to Starmer’s comments by describing the two-child policy as “one of the most unpleasant pieces of legislation ever to have been passed in the UK”.
She tweeted: “It’s very rare for someone to enter the House of Commons having been on tax credits, but myself and a few others did in 2017; scrapping this cruel policy was one of our shared political motives.”
One Labour frontbencher said that even if the policy was popular with focus groups, it was “toxic, morally wrong and doesn’t work”. Other MPs, including those who backed Starmer’s leadership bid, said there was a lot of unhappiness across the party.